A few days ago Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, gave an interview to the Iranian press which touched on the Cyrus Cylinder and the reign of Cyrus the Great, the first shah of ancient Persia.
Cyrus the Great was an historical figure of towering importance, the man who not only forged the Achaemenid Persian Empire but also crafted its form of government and style of rule in such a way as to enable it to endure for over two centuries. One of the few documents surviving from his reign is the so-called Cyrus Cylinder, a cuneiform-covered column erected to commemorate (and justify) his incorporation of the ancient lands of Babylon into his empire. It is an interesting document, with an even more interesting modern history.
The cylinder is an early example of royal propaganda and self-justification. That sounds harsh, and the truth is that from what we know of the reign of Cyrus he was an extraordinarily enlightened ruler by ancient standards. He was responsible for freeing the Jews from captivity in Babylon and returning them to Palestine and, unlike most ancient monarchs, practiced a policy of religious tolerance throughout his reign, a policy followed by his successors. Religious and ethnic tolerance, combined with the encouragement of trade and scholarship, had much to do with the longevity and comparative stability of the ancient Persian empire.
But that information comes from sources other than the Cyrus Cylinder. The cylinder itself is a fairly conventional inscription explaining how the deposed king of Babylon was a really bad guy and how everything Cyrus did, he did for Babylon, not himself. It was only in 1971 that the cylinder began assuming a political importance beyond its historical and archaeological significance. At that time the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Palavi, used it as the symbol of the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian monarchy. More importantly, he used Cyrus’s religious tolerance as the historical basis for a modern Iranian secular monarchy.
It was an interesting analogy and not altogether crazy. The fact that 1971 missed being the actual 2,500th anniversary of the Achaemenid monarchy by thirty years was glossed over. The fact that the Cyrus Cylinder’s text did not really constitute, as the shah claimed, ”The First Human Rights Charter in History” was addressed more directly. A phony version of the translation was manufactured and widely circulated. The initial text was retained intact, but then a bogus passage was inserted where there is actually a missing segment of the cylinder’s text, as if it were the missing part. It read, in part,
“I announce that I will respect the traditions, customs and religions of the nations of my empire and never let any of my governors and subordinates look down on or insult them as long as I shall live. From now on, while Ahuramazda lets me rule, I will impose my monarchy on no nation. Each is free to accept it, and if any one of them rejects it, I shall never resolve on war to reign.”
The bogus passage also claimed to end slavery in the empire. In fact, slavery remained a feature of the Achaemenid Empire, as with virtually every ancient society, although the Achaemenid Persians relied less on slavery for key economic activities than did, for example, the Greeks, and far less than did the Romans.
So what does all this have to do with President Ahmadinejad? The Cyrus Cylinder, owned by the British Museum, is currently on loan to Tehran and on display there. When Ahmadinejad commented on it the other day, he referred to it as the Declaration of Human Rights, and then went on to paraphrase parts of it – or rather parts of the imaginary passages inserted probably at the encouragement of Shah Palavi, the monarch overthrown by the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and replaced by the Islamic Republic of which Ahmadinejad now serves as president.
So Ahmadinejad is quoting forged, and widely repudiated, passages of the most famous historical document of his country. On top of that, he is quoting passages probably forged by the Shah, who his regime replaced. On top of that, they are passages used to support the idea of a secular Iranian government, a principle fundamentally opposed to the current constitutional theocracy.
The contradictions inherent in this position are not lost on clerics and politicians in Iran, and criticism of his actions began almost instantly, starting with Member of Parliament Ali Motahari, hardline conservative and son of the late revolutionary cleric Morteza Motahari. “The actions of Cyrus,” Motohari declaimed, “were not in line with the prophets’ teachings.”
It is tempting to ask, “Just how stupid is Ahmadinejad?” But he is not stupid. When he quotes forged passages or invented conspiracy theories, he does not think he is lying.
I know a lot of people so convinced of the correctness of their position that they spout “facts” which they make up on the spot – convinced they aren’t lying, convinced the facts must be right, because they are logically linked to their core belief. Tell them their facts are wrong, show them, prove it to them, and they shrug. Maybe those facts are wrong, but somewhere there must be some other facts which are right and which support their position. There have to be because their position is right. They know it. They are also, as a general rule, not terribly curious to discover additional facts. They already know more than enough.
Like those people, Ahmadinejad is neither a conscious liar nor is he stupid. He is simply, by enthusiastic choice, an ignoramus.
For those interested in further reading about the Cyrus Cylinder, here is a link to a good summary on Jona Lendering’s Livius web site.About the Author: The major landmarks in Frank's historical interests range from ancient Persia through the Crimean War, World War II, and the modern U.S. Armed Forces, with a lot of stops in between. Frank is fascinated by the unusual, the overlooked, and the surprising. He is the New York Times number one best-selling author of the Desert Shield Fact Book (1991) and he is currently writing an historical novel on Alexander's conquest of Persia – from the Persian point of view.